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Jan P. Dennis
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As the Catholic Church in the 20th century has rebounded from its Reformation-induced four-century hunkered-down posture, one of the things it has done is to recover a gracefulness of apologetics that has become one of its greatest attributes. The works of such authors as Jean Guitton (e.g., The Church and the Gospel and The Problem of Jesus), Rene Girard (I See Satan Fall Like Lightening), Jean-Luc Marion (God Without Being), Hans Urs von Balthasar, Romano Guardini, and Louis Bouyer (e.g., The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism and Word, Church, and Sacrament in Protestantism and Catholicism)--not to mention those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI--have positioned the Church more in the stance of dialog partner than of antagonist even as she has maintained the integrity of her position as bearer of the fullness of the faith.
This great little book by Yves Congar, long out of print but now once again, thankfully, available, solidifies the Church's well-deserved reputation as a gentle warrior for truth even in relation to those who find themselves, largely through no fault of their own, outside its precincts.
In my thirty-year journey to Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism, I don't ever recall encountering a formal delineation of the Catholic understanding of Tradition. Even though I had come to a position where I felt I could substantially affirm Catholic self-understandings, I can't remember ever coming face to face with the Catholic position on Tradition. Yes, I had arrived at essentially the same view the Church takes on Tradition--that the threefold ministry (bishop, priest, deacon), the Catholic form of worship (variously called the Mass, the Eucharist, the Paschal Mystery), and the Catholic understanding of authority (expressed normatively through the Magisterium) are all essential aspects of the Church--but without actually encountering the Catholic concept of Tradition. In other words, I deduced the necessity of such a thing as Tradition in Catholic self-understanding without actually having made its acquaintance. Which was fine, except that if I had had the opportunity to read this wonderful treatise by Yves Congar, I might have resolved my difficulties about becoming Catholic far earlier.
The greatest thing about this book is its clarity. In little more than 65,000 words, the renowned French theologian and architect of Vatican II succinctly and elegantly lays out the Catholic view of Tradition--the handing on of unwritten understandings--from the Lord to the Apostles to their successors, the Bishops, up to the present. For a Catholic this Tradition is authoritative, because it came from the Lord himself, who handed it on or over to the Apostles, who in turn handed it on to their successors. The Latin word for Tradition literally means a handing on or handing over. The contents of this Tradition are, essentially, the Eucharist, the threefold ministry, and the Petrine prerogatives. Since Tradition has a divine origin and Apostolic pedigree, it cannot be changed: its Worship, Ministry, and Authority are something received from the Lord through the Apostles and then the Bishops; these things, therefore, are not subject to correction or reconfiguration. They may be developed, but not altered.
From a Catholic perspective, Protestants also share in the Church's Tradition, although imperfectly and incompletely: The breach that occurred in the sixteenth century between Catholics and Protestants caused the latter to lose certain essential aspects of Tradition in terms of Worship, Ministry, and Authority. In Worship, Protestants devised novel liturgies that often incompletely expressed the fullness of Catholic understanding, especially, for example, in relation to such essential concepts as Eucharistic sacrifice. Interestingly, many of these incompletions have been recovered in contemporary Protestant liturgical churches (e.g., Lutheran and Anglican) in consequence of the Liturgical Renewal. In ministry, many Protestant churches lost the threefold ministry, and those that retained it have struggled to find a way link it to historic apostolicity. There is also a critical problem of jurisdiction, as the Catholic Church regards its Bishops and none others as the Apostolic Ordinaries in any given geographical area. As regards authority, Protestantism tended to lose the ability to speak definitively about doctrine as well as to exercise discipline on wayward members, especially in relation to clergy and theologians who depart from received understandings.
As Protestants are more and more coming to see that the Catholic Church has resources that they lack, this eloquent book will help them understand how it is that she came to possess these resources. Perhaps it will also be a source for increased understanding among divided Christians. For Catholics, it will help them understand how the bounteous riches their Church daily experiences came to be, how they were passed on and preserved, and how they continue to give it life.
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"Tradition is memory, and memory enriches experience. If we remembered nothing it would be impossible to advance; the same would be true if we were bound to a slavish imitation of the past. True tradition is not servility but fidelity." Yves Cardinal Congar
"For Congar, Tradition is a real, living self-communication of God. Its content is the whole Christian reality disclosed in Jesus Christ. It is transmitted not only by written and spoken words, but equally by prayer, sacramental worship and participation in the Church's life." Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.
Tradition and Traditions:
The process and content of the transmission of beliefs, doctrines, rituals, Scriptures, and life of the Church. As a process, tradition constitutes the modern sense of the whole life of the Church. Nor does it refer to traditions as a collection of traditions, that is, ecclesiastical customs. Rather "Traditions" refer to apostolic traditions, what is essential to faith. examples of traditions (in the Tridentine sense) would be the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist." Susan Wood, Encyclopedia of Catholicism
"There is a sense in which the very notion of tradition seems inconsistent with the idea of history as movement and change. For tradition is thought to be ancient, hallowed by age, unchanged since it was first established once upon a time. It does not have a history, since history implies the appearance, at a certain point in time, of that which has not been before....Upon closer examination, however, the problem of tradition and history is seen to be more complex. Even the most doctrinaire traditionalist must be concerned with such questions as the authenticity of works ascribed to an ecclesiastical writer or of decrees ascribed to a council;... Thus both the variety of Christian teachings within history and their possible unity within tradition are integral to the subject matter..." Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition I
Living & Petrified Traditions:
These traditions lead us to suspect that tradition is not just a conservative force, but rather a principle that ensures the continuity and identity of the same attitude through successive generations. A sociologist defined it accurately: "Tradition, in the true sense of the word, implies a spontaneous assimilation of the past in understanding the present, without a break in the continuity of a society's life, and without considering the past as outmoded." In its different forms, tradition is like the conscience of a group or the principle of identity that links one generation with another; it enables them to remain the same human race and the same peoples as they go forward throughout history, which transforms all things.
Congar on Tradition & Sola Scriptura:
"The 'tradition' that is the subject of this little book is not scientific, artistic, sociological or even moral tradition; it is Christian tradition, in the dogmatic sense of the word. ..., and the conditions of life amid the religious divisions and entanglements of this world of ours will scarcely allow him to remain unaware of the existence of the controversy between Catholics and Protestants-the latter claiming the authority of Scripture alone, the former adding to it "tradition". For every Catholic, Scripture (the Old and the New Testament) enjoys pride of place, since its value is absolute. Thus he knows that he is bound to read holy Scripture in a "Catholic Bible", even though he may be unable to say in exactly what way a Catholic Bible differs from a "Protestant" one. He knows that the Bible by itself, left to personal interpretation, may result in erroneous positions in Christian belief the Christian sects remind him of this daily. He knows that since the Reformation there is controversy between Christians on 'Scripture versus tradition', a controversy on the rule of faith." Y. Congar
Self & Others Reviews:
"The first object of this book will be to examine what every Catholic knows already about the tradition by which he lives, for the purpose of clarifying what is usually a confused view of the subject. Matters will probably appear more complicated than he had suspected. " Congar
"When I have taught on Tradition to seminarians and graduate students I have regularly used this book. Congar is perhaps the greatest master of the theology of Tradition who has ever lived." Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.
Yves Cardinal Congar:
The French Dominican theologian, and ecumenist Cardinal, may have been the most influential theologian of Vatican II. He was regarded as a dangerous innovator, and thus treated with suspicion, endured suspension from teaching and banishment, until restored by Pope John XXIII restored his scholarship, appointing him V-II Commision Peritus. Tradition and Tradions, book's original title (of first chapter) was his major collaboration, in the study conducted in the early sixties by WCC (World Council of Churches)